Could games make grown men cry?

I read an article in one of our local free papers this week which listed the results of a survey about films which made men cry. This was in the wake of Toy Story being released over here and proving a weepie.

Up made #3 on the list. #1 was Return of the King — maybe manly tears when the Rohirrim make their last charge, or tears of frustration because the endings dragged for so long. The Italian Job was another puzzling entry; one respondent claimed he was gutted when the cars were trashed, so I guess that was an emotional moment.

And it’s a funny thing but when we talk about films (or books, or games) which have an emotional impact, we usually mean films that make us cry rather than that make us laugh, or make us angry.  It’s funny because it’s no harder to make a weepy film than a comedy – in fact it’s probably easier. But crying isn’t a reaction you can control so maybe that’s why it feels more powerful.

This was on my mind because I have recently played a game which made me cry, and it was Dragon Quest IX.

Games that make you cry

JRPGs have always been good at portraying the melodramatic, romantic storylines about relationships between simple, sympathetic characters who the player cares about.

The part in DQ9 which got to me was quite near the start:

Your character goes to a village which is threatened by a plague. You help a reclusive scientist who lives there to find a cure and return triumphantly to heal the village, all except for one person who died quietly while you were adventuring – the scientist’s wife. He was working so hard that he never even noticed that she was sick. He’s heartbroken and depressed and locks himself away in his lab. Later, you meet the ghost of the wife who begs you to help her husband come to terms with the death by persuading him to come out and meet the people he saved so that they can thank him.

It’s very poignantly written for such a simple quest. All the villagers react differently at different stages in the quest. They have different voices and (simple) personalities. And I had tears in my eyes when one villager thanked the scientist for saving his wife and daughter and then stuttered and apologised, remembering the other man’s loss too.

But why is it that western RPGs rarely seem to get that level of emotional reaction from gamers? Why don’t they even try?  I loved Dragon Age: Origins but I didn’t really care that much about any of the NPCs, I couldn’t get away from the quest based view of seeing them as means to get more story, more loot, or more xp.

I think it’s partly because the western core audience has so long been assumed to be 18-30 year old males, and received wisdom is that they don’t like emotional, weepy storylines. Only now that this ‘core’ audience is getting older do they get games like Heavy Rain.

Advertising for DQ9 on TV, on the other hand, is aimed at teenage girls. They show the cute outfits you can collect and the funny monsters. (They don’t show the classic RPG core of the game, the variety of smart and interesting collecting games, the achievements, or the multiplayer.)

Another reason is that western games tend to focus very closely on the player as hero. It’s all about YOU. NPCs are there because of their relationship to you. If the game makes you cry, it’s because something has happened to YOU or something has been taken away from YOU. Getting people to care about the NPCs has proved either a harder task, or something in which writers have no interest. (They should hire some romance writers, really.)

But as long as games are so focussed at their target niches, maybe we’ll never get the sort of depth found in a really good family film that can make the adults cry with the pathos even as the kids are bouncing in their seats and sympathising with a different character. A family game these days is more defined by the accessible gameplay and bright, attractive animation than by characters and story that can appeal to adults and kids on several different levels.

Maybe gaming is yet to really get its Toy Story 3 or Up, but I think the signs are all there that it could happen. Have you ever played a game that made you cry (not just out of frustration.)

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20 thoughts on “Could games make grown men cry?

  1. The film list actually comes from a story the BBC News website ran here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-10814813

    For me, there have been a couple of times in games where I’ve had to ‘pretend a manly cough’, both Bioware games… The singing in Dragon Age which was amazing and also at the end of Mass Effect where you have to make *that* choice…

    Compelling narratives woven into games can be as moving as films; it’s about the emotional involvement and how much you feel a part of the story…

    Games developers seem to be getting that much more now, make you care about the character and what they’re going through. Regardless of Roger Ebert’s arguments, gaming is becoming art, and th emore emotionally involved we can get with it, the better…

    • I can’t recall a game that’s made me cry in recent years, but I do distinctly remember Shining Force making me well up a bit at the end. Mind you, that was on the original Mega Drive, so quite a while ago (and I was hardly a grown man at the time). Even so.

      And tears did somehow manage to escape during Toy Story 3.

      :’S

    • Bioshock does have a very emotive ending but I felt it was rushed. If the focus had been held longer over the closing scenes then it would have allowed for an emotional response from the player. Instead it was more a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ kind of moment.

      Just been reading an article about how violence is killing narrative and have to agree that while its good to have involving stories for players to experience(in a film-like trance) the only response a player has over proceedings is to kill, maim or insult. Developers need to incorporate a wider array of interactions that feel more in tune with the story.

  2. The movies Excalibur and Last of the Mohicans came pretty close, an An Officer and a Gentleman also came pretty close as tear jerker for men. In literature, David Gemmell writes some pretty epic stuff that often is full of tragedy. Ever cried for a Trojan whore?

    But games… (10 minutes pass, no kidding) … no, not really one.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exile_(1988_video_game)
    came pretty close
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Control_II
    a very funny game, but several Genocides happened there, and the last message of a species stating they are now gone caused me to restart the entire game and find a way to prevent this!

    • SC2 is a classic. I did much the same thing to save a species or two. Saving the Shofixti was gratifying *and* useful.

      As to Spinks’ question, the Kingdom Hearts games have given me a couple of emotional pauses, as did FFX. Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross had more than a few wrenching moments.

      For movies, Up is fantastic, Monsters, Inc. is a favorite, and How to Train Your Dragon is surprisingly touching.

      • Oh, and for what it’s worth, FFVII was touching at points, too… but now that I’m older and a father of two, different things cause me to react strongly. I’m no longer pining after losing a potential love, I’m strongly protective of who I have in my life. Too many devs are still stuck in their emotional teens, and the stories reflect that.

        The “maturation” of games will be more about the stories and real world emotional maturation, not sex and violence.

  3. I will admit that there have been at least two moments in WoW that brought a tear to my eye: first was the end of the Mor’Ladim quest series in Duskwood; second was the Wrathgate. I’ve seen the cutscene for the Fall of the Lich King and it hasn’t made me cry, but maybe that’s because it was from clicking the fountain and not from killing Arthas (still — argh).

    But I will also admit that I’m in that older (40+) demographic — I think I’ve become more prone to emotional manipulation from things like this as I’ve aged.

    On the other side of the coin, I laughed so hard that I cried, quite literally, while watching that ‘live action gunship battle’ that was posted over at WoW.com recently. Go figure.

  4. Pan’s Labyrinth is the only movie that ever had me tear up, and even that was more sniffling and eye-wiping than straight out crying.
    On the other hand there have been atleast 4 games (off the top of my head) that got the same reaction: Mass Effect 1 & 2, Legacy of Kain Defiance and Prince of Persia Sands of Time.
    I may not be a dude but I think that should count in favour of emotionally engaging games :)

  5. I think it’s partly because the western core audience has so long been assumed to be 18-30 year old males, and received wisdom is that they don’t like emotional, weepy storylines.

    Yet this precise demographic is the one that grew up with Final Fantasy 7 which released in 1997 and was quite possibly the first video game *ever* to include CGI cinematics of that quality *and* Sephiroth killing Aeris was rendered in an extremely emotional way that brought tears to nearly everyone who played it. It has nothing to do with being a fantastic game, it was average at best for a JRPG and was rife with childish dialogue but there were enough cinematics and dialogue throughout the game to build up the relationships that we knew despite starting a relationship with Tifa it would always be Aeris who truly held Cloud’s heart. That was 13 years ago — probably longer than current crop of developers have been working in the business — and they still haven’t learned that lesson.

  6. There is a scene in Karate Kid that brought a tear to my eye, and like Jeffo I too am in the 40+ demo and find myself prone to emotional tugs as I’ve aged.

    I enjoyed just about all aspects of the original Mafia but remember best two scenes:

    1. protecting my patron at the Italian restaurant and
    2. getting the consigliere and his family out safely at the airport

    I felt attached enough to the npcs to want to do this (and oh btw running over bad guys in my jeep).

    Comedy has been with us since Zork, but I remember best playing Fallout 2 and starting off in an area with a vault full of water chips. Genius writing.

    The NYTimes reviewer has an article today about the maturation of themes in games and cites the aging developers themselves for this change.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/07/arts/television/07games.html?_r=1&ref=arts

  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revenant_%28video_game%29

    they say that the game was somewhat unfinished, buggy, whatever. but when I first picked it up and started playing through – I got caught up. and when the story got to conclusion and you realize who he is and who the woman he was supposed to rescue is…and the main theme still makes me shiver.

    yeah, I’ m a hopeless romantic >_>

  8. Games really don’t. Something about pacing: there is way too much filler in between emotional scenes.

    The anime series Clannad made me cry. It’s notorious for making EVERYONE cry. Hardened youtube trolls and manly men will admit to this. You have not seen a weepie until you have seen the end of the Fuko story arc in it.

  9. When I was a teenager FFVII and FFX both got some tears out of me. The scene where Aeris dies and the very ending cutscene of FFX.

    There haven’t been any games in the last few years to have that much of an emotional impact on me. Most characters fall flat when I play through games these days. As you said, NPCs are there because of the main character. Most games are all about what the main character wants/needs. The theme of silent protagonists doesn’t help either.

  10. Preface: not a man, so maybe I cry easy.

    FFX got me, along with the other commenters. Less Yuna/Tidus’s story than Braska/Jecht/Auron though. Man they had a great story, and I loved the way they told it.

    Lost Oddysey is another one that had me crying. But that story was obviously designed to make you emotionally involved.

    A weird one would be SMT: Persona 3. There’s a scene where a stern gruff guy who doesn’t like anybody takes a bullet for another party member, and it was seriously gut wrenching. I kind of sat there staring at the screen with my mouth hanging open and tears running down my face. Man I love that game.

    As for other media than games… I cried *all through* Avatar: The Last Airbender. For a kid’s cartoon, it’s scarily adult.

  11. Heroic sacrifices and other tragic deaths are a fairly reliable method of enticing a response out of me.
    * Toroko’s and Curly Brace’s fates in Cave Story
    * Dan’s fate and Iji’s breakdown in Iji
    * Metroid’s fate in Super Metroid
    * The Proudtusk quest in Burning Steppes
    * Pamela Redpath
    * GFS Tyr’s apocalyptic log in Metroid Prime 2
    * GFS Valhalla’s apocalyptic log in Metroid Prime 3
    * Rundas in Metroid Prime 3
    * Midna’s near-death in Zelda: Twilight Princess
    * I’ve never played Animal Crossing, but somebody ought to

    As always, TV Tropes has a list just for this occasion.

  12. I have cried precisely once in WoW.

    It was just after they revamped Theramore and Dustwallow Marsh. I was going through and doing all the new quests when I discovered that they had continued the “Smiling Jim” quest line. This had always been one of my favorite quest lines, and after three or four years i wanted to see James Hyal get his family back, or find peace, or something.

    I went through the quest, and when I finished it and talked to the ghost of his wife and kid for the first time…I shed a few tears. I had waited years to see this man find some measure of happiness, some reason to go on living, and all they said was, “We’ll be here when you die?” That’s all he gets? It was one of the more depressing quest endings, especially since the nature of the game means that he is still sitting there in theramore, crying softly, every time I go through.

    For some reason this only affected me the first time I did it. I guess I just wasn’t expecting it.

    The only other quest chain that made me close to that sad in WoW was the Pamela Redpath saga. I can’t think of too many other surprising games that I cried over. And yeah, I am a 22-year-old guy, and I don’t cry too incredibly easily. I’m just a sucker for a good sad ghost story.

  13. At the end of Super Mario RPG, when Geno says his goodbyes and leaves behind only the doll, I teared up a bit. And at the end of the credits parade, when the stars twinkle – and I know it was Geno up there, waving at his friends – I definitely shed at least one tear. It was such a poignant, emotional moment from a wonderful game.

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